Foreign Policy, Leverage and Charity

May 19, 2004 Topic: Global Governance Region: RussiaCentral AsiaEurasia Tags: RealismDiplomacy

Foreign Policy, Leverage and Charity

In their new edited volume, Swords and Sustenance, Robert Legvold and Celeste Wallander (1) conclude with an important reminder: "foreign policy is not an act of charity.

In their new edited volume, Swords and Sustenance, Robert Legvold and Celeste Wallander (1) conclude with an important reminder: "foreign policy is not an act of charity."

Their work deals with the economic relationship between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus' and the implications this has for politics and security for these two immediate neighbors to Moscow. In contrast to many other observers of Eurasia, who assume that Russia can somehow be dissuaded from pursuing its economic and security interests in its immediate neighborhood, they note:

" … it would be silly to expect Russian leaders not to make the most of Russia's energy resources, its capital-or the capital of its capitalists-and even the shadow of its military power in pursuit of national interest. The point is not whether this leverage should or should not be employed, but how."

One could take the previous paragraph and substitute a number of states (making appropriate allowances for differences in conditions).  China, India, Iran and Brazil to name a few. But the point that Levgold and Wallander make is the same, the point is not whether these countries-or any state-will employ the leverage at its disposal, but it is how they choose to do so.

The United States, as I have noted many times, does not possess unlimited funds, treasure and energy. It cannot tackle every problem in the world. It therefore has a very strong incentive to search for assistance in dealing with major threats, and at the same time minimizing the incentives of other states to create or manufacture new problems.

In the Fall 2003 issue of The National Interest, I used the motif of "investors" to describe how the United States should seek out support. Seeking "disciples" to join on an idealistic crusade to reshape the world, engaging "servants" to carry out our bidding in return for the crumbs from our table not long-term, sustainable policies for the United States. I further noted that "a country may earnestly desire to be a partner of the United States, but this in no way means that it ceases to pursue its own national interests."

Several weeks ago, "The Realist Bibliophile" noted the argument put forth by William Odom and Robert Dujarric, that "the United States is a new type of imperial power, "wealth-generating and voluntary"--in other words, a cooperative empire where the clients benefit as much as the metropole. This, in their view, creates incentives for states to align with the United States but also to voluntarily reform their own domestic political and economic institutions along liberal lines to qualify for membership."

We know what many of those incentives are: Charles Krauthammer identified them more than two years ago. American leadership and power is expected to maintain "an international system, which provides for open seas, open trade and open societies lightly defended."

But this, of course, is not an act of American charity to the rest of the world. Certainly, the United States benefits from this as well-in both economic and security terms.

Which brings me back to my initial starting point.  Legvold and Wallander noted that "foreign policy is not an act of charity," and I've tried to emphasize that even in the enlightened 21st century - the  quid pro quo remains the building block of diplomacy.

And it is a worrying trend that in both of the major American political parties, the debate over the future direction of American foreign policy doesn't even seem to encompass this perspective.  Internationalism of both the right and the left assumes that countries will stand with the United States because of the rightness of our cause or because we asked in a persuasive way.

I admit, much of what I am saying is not new. However, it becomes difficult, after a while, to keep re-iterating the same points. One could just as easily substitute a column written in 2002 or 2003 that would still be as applicable today.

Realism isn't sexy. But it's sensible. In the end, whatever mission utopians start, it's the realists who have to finish the job.  And not out of charity.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is fulfilling his civic duty by serving on a jury. His normal day job is executive editor of The National Interest.


(1)  Robert Legvold's "All the Way: Crafting a U.S.-Russian Alliance" appeared in the December 18, 2002 issue of In the National Interest (' Celeste Wallander's "Business is Business: Russia, Trade and the "Axis of Evil"" appeared in the December 2, 2002 issue (